Bay County Economic Development Leaders Look for a "Home Run" in 2014

PANAMA CITY- Bay County economic development leaders say they think 2014 is the year we'll see a major employer move to Bay County. It's been ten years since the major economic crash began in our area and so far, Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport hasn't brought the economic boom many hoped for, yet. NewsChannel 7's Meredith TerHaar asks some tough questions about the future of economic development in Bay County.

In 2002 and 2003 condo complexes shot up rapidly and local home prices soared. But time would tell, the development was based on speculation. When the country plunged into the "Great Recession" Northwest Florida dipped even further. Many pegged their recovery hopes on Southwest Airlines and the opening of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in 2010. But the fanfare didn't bring a boom. "Where is the boost we were expecting?" asked Meredith. "I think a lot of people ask that question and I ask that question," said Bay Economic Development Alliance Director Neal Wade.

Wade says airport planners put their emphasis on getting ready for commercial flights, but it wasn't ready to support major industry. "We need hangars, we need the apron, the air infrastructure, and so we are very focused on working with airport officials so that we get that kind of infrastructure in place and then we can target the kind of companies that we want to bring to the airport," said Wade.

So who are they hoping to attract? Wade says the answer lies in the rapidly growing commercial aerospace industry, especially now that Mobile is home to a new airbus plant. "We see it as a tremendous opportunity because we are sitting in an area here where we have access to Boeing in South Carolina, Embraer, we have Gulf Stream in Georgia, we have Airbus in Alabama. So we kind of sit in a central area. I think we are in a great position to target those aerospace companies."

Statistics show in the next 20 years demand for air traffic will grow at 4.7% annually. Bay County wants to benefit. "Number one we are going after an assembly project. We are going after a major worldwide global company that is going to build some type of aircraft at the airport," said Wade.

Another key piece to this puzzle: having the skilled workforce necessary to support a major supplier. "I've been in this business for 25 years and I saw when incentives and sites drove projects, I now believe that if you can show a company that you can get the workers, you've got a very good chance to win the project. So we are very committed to working with our K-12 and our post-secondary to have a world class education system in Bay County."

It will take work, but Wade says the future is bright. "We have to hit a home run this year because I think it's important for us to demonstrate not just in aerospace but in the other target industries that Bay County is really ready to grow and really ready to take the next step."

The Bay EDA has set a goal of creating or attracting 2,000 jobs in the county in 2014. They met and surpassed their goal of 1300 jobs in 2013.